Politics & Policy

Quittin’ Time

Brownback 2008 should end.

The Sam Brownback for president campaign has reached the condition referred to by political scientists as “extreme pointlessness.” O.K., maybe political scientists don’t call it that, but pretty much any other observer would.

The Brownback campaign is essentially premised on pro-life purity. The Kansas senator himself would insist that it is based on his “whole life” views. I admire those views and think they are very important. (I was genuinely delighted to see Brownback hugging, if I’m not mistaken, a woman with Down Syndrome in his Iowa straw poll video — good for him) But it’s not any of the particularly whole-life issues — care for the elderly and disabled, Darfur, prison reform — that are driving his campaign.

Instead, it’s attacks on other candidates for not being pro-life enough, or more precisely for not being pro-life soon enough. I find this pointless. I don’t believe that Mitt Romney is ever going to go back to being pro-choice. But, fine, maybe his conversion in 2004 is of too recent vintage to be believed.

Then, there’s Fred Thompson. The former Tennessee senator converted to pro-life sometime after 1994. That’s long enough ago to grandfather anyone in to his new position. But it’s presumably not long enough for Brownback, who is running his campaign less on ideology than on chronology.

What would be long enough? How about someone who’s always been pro-life? That would be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who demonstrated in Ames last week what was already pretty clear: He has more political appeal than Brownback in a presidential race. Huckabee has shined in the debates, is a natural orator, and has considerable crossover appeal to the media. None of this can be said of Brownback.

The logic of Brownback’s campaign suggests that he now must try to tear down Huckabee — because he needs to clear out Huckabee the pro-lifer before he can effectively tear down the other, higher-ranked pro-life candidates. On what basis he can go after Huckabee remains to be seen. It’s doubtful that he’s going to win the chronology contest with a guy who was a Baptist pastor before he entered politics in 1992. Maybe on grounds of viability? That’s a hard case to make after Ames.

All of this might end up hurting the pro-life cause. For people for whom the pro-life issue trumps all, the imperative has to be beating the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani. A fractured pro-life field probably helps Rudy, and at this point, Brownback can only help keep it fractured.

On the other hand, perhaps Brownback eating away at Huckabee’s vote keeps Huckabee from hurting the more-viable pro-life candidates. So there it is: In practical terms for pro-lifers, Brownback’s campaign is balanced somewhere between pointless and counter-productive.

The campaign is also the very embodiment of a tendency toward impractical perfectionism among pro-lifers, as Brownback tries to hunt down and slay every convert to the pro-life cause. But converts are to be welcomed; pro-lifers will never prevail without them.

Sometimes a campaign can be about delivering a message over and above any concrete political considerations. But the truth is that the Brownback presidential campaign is doing the senator’s moral cause no favors. If anything, say to say, his cause is being hurt by the association.

First, there’s the negativity of his campaign. I don’t have any problem with negative campaigning and there’s obviously nothing wrong with Christians engaging in political and intellectual combat, but the spectacle of such a self-consciously Christian candidate running perhaps the most negative of any of the campaigns is jarring and discomfiting.

Second, there’s the fact that Brownback hasn’t shown great aptitude for politics at the presidential level. At the outset of a campaign in which support for the Iraq war is crucial for conservatives, Brownback opposed the surge. At a time when opposition to illegal immigration was becoming the hottest hot-button issue on the right, Brownback endorsed last year’s Senate amnesty bill, before backtracking and opposing this year’s (somewhat tougher) amnesty bill, before twisting himself into the spectacular act on the Senate floor of voting for cloture on the bill right before voting against it.

Sam Brownback is a principled and sincere man. He can do lots of important work promoting the cause of protecting and honoring the dignity of all human lives — in the U.S. Senate.

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